Monday, September 1, 2014  
 

BBC Radio Foyle interview




When did freemasonry start?





That question is almost impossible to answer, because we have to decide WHAT Freemasonry is before we can even attempt an answer at WHEN it started?

The Craft, as Freemasonry is also known, emerged into the world of light from an unknown past. It emerged in the British Isles, and arose in the 18th Century as three separate groupings around the main divisions of England/Wales - Scotland - and Ireland. From there it spread around the globe, at first in lodges that were subordinate to the three British jurisdictions, but which then went on to govern themselves with their own Grand Lodges.

From that, a vast array of Masonic organizations grew, some of which are in strict accord with the three original British Isles constitutions  and are recognized as legitimate - and others, less faithful to the original ways, which are not. 

So what started the Masonic ball rolling? 

On St. John the Baptist's Day, 24th of June 1717, four London lodges assembled in the Goose and Gridiron Alehouse in the St. Paul's Churchyard area of England's capital, to form the very first Grand Lodge in the world. Ireland followed suit eight years later in 1725, and in 1736 the Scottish did likewise. This has led to a general acceptance that Masonry started in London and grew outwards throughout the country over the following 19 years. The difficulty with that theory is that there are many historical indicators that the Craft's true home is not London, but is north of the border in Edinburgh. That debate aside, however, it is nevertheless a fact that 1717 was when Freemasonry first acknowledged its existence to the world, but what preceded that date?


Freemasonry owes much of its ritual and structure  to the mediaeval stone-working industry - but there is a great deal of difference between the older lodges of working stonemasons who used to build in stone, and  the lodges of 'gentlemen' Freemasons of more modern times whose building was of the character, rather than actual. Elements of today's Freemasonry can be identified as far back as the 12th Century in the earliest lodges of working stonemasons who worked on the great cathedrals of that era, but all we have from that time is knowledge that the stonemasons banded into groups and called those groups lodges. There is no evidence that their rituals carried any particularly esoteric aspects - and it is the esoteric content of Freemasonry that makes it what it is. The 'Holy Grail' of Masonic research is pinpointing the moment in time that the arcana we can see in today's lodges was introduced to the rituals of the ordinary working stonemasons.    

The current academic view is that up until the middle of the 17th Century there was nothing untoward about the lodges of stonemasons and that they were simple working men. Then, goes the theory, in the mid-1600s the initiatory structure of their lodge system caught the attention of the outside world. When they became aware of this, men who had no interest in working with stone presented themselves at the door of the Craft and sought membership. Through time the working stonemasons faded from the lodges and the new 'gentlemen' took over, converting what they had inherited from their forbears into a semi-secret fraternity - their labours kept private from those in the world outside by the complex initiations and secret signs that the stonemasons had previously used. Those that hold this view generally believe it was at that point that the inner workings of the lodges were embellished with pseudo-archaic rites of the newcomer's own invention. By definition, then, those rites will be a concoction of symbolic notions relating directly and solely to the tools and working practices of the stonemasons, and would have no meaning beyond that.

An example of this symbolism is the right-angled square used to 'square' the blocks of stone for inclusion in the building. On a symbolic level this refers to 'squaring' ones actions in life. Likewise the compasses that are used to scribe a circle can become an allusion to the need to circumscribe our actions within a moral code if we would live in peace with our fellow-man. We can work through the rest of the tools of the trade in similar fashion, and build up what can be called the moral ethos of Freemasonry. And that is as far as it goes for the vast majority of academic Masonic researchers. Few look further, to see if those concepts could have deeper, more ancient meanings, or consider the possibility that the stonemasons of yesteryear appreciated those selfsame meanings. 

                                                                   A new approach

My own research was inspired in large part by the implausibility of the above theory of origin, for what would have driven gentlemen to ask their social inferiors for permission to join their party when they could so easily have formed their own organisation along similar lines and constructed their own teachings from their own symbols? What I uncovered gave a much more likely scenario - for it suggests that the esoterica that is present in the Craft today - its curious signs and symbols and the quirky rites that convey them - are truly ancient, and carry an advanced understanding of the workings of the cosmos from a time before recorded history.

I have also discovered that the square, the compass and the plumb-line all carry far deeper allusions than are presently known and that that knowledge had been present in the mediaeval lodges for a very long time before outsiders took an interest in their ways. It was to avail themselves of that ancient wisdom, then, that the gentlemen of the Age of Reason knocked on the door of the Craft seeking admission. The arcane secrets of the stonemasons' lodges were by then thousands of years old, and though they had once been sacred, by that time they were no longer spiritual, but were fascinating because of the ancient knowledge of the cosmos they carried. Such knowledge would have been like honey to the bee for the men of the Enlightenment who were in the process of throwing off the shackles of the blind ignorance of the past and replacing it with reason and scientific enquiry.

More than two hundred and ninety years have passed since 1717. To some that is a long time indeed - but in terms of the sacred knowledge of the cosmos that the author has found in the symbols and rites of the lodge room it is but the blink of an eye or the beat of a heart. The tale revealed in The Craft and the Cross shows that the arcana of Freemasonry is as old as Man, and the book’s analysis of the symbolism’s layer upon layer of meanings allows a chink of light to fall on an ancient landscape that has been dark for thousands of years. And in illuminating that past, we are afforded a new understanding of ourselves and the signs and symbols that we all still use to express our present day view of the 'Here and Now' we inhabit, and the fathomless depths of the 'Hereafter' that awaits us all.      




  

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